Book Review: Design Leadership

August 20, 2018

Design LeadershipAs the profession of User Experience matures and becomes more enmeshed in organizational strategy, we see a greater need for UX professionals to develop soft skills. It is this realization that led Paul Sherman, my colleague at Kent State, to give his presentation “The Unicorn Is Dead” at several conferences and for our Kent State UXD program to explore ways to incorporate leadership skills into our curriculum. Leadership is a learned skill that we need to apply at all levels of an organization—not just at the top.

One of the books I reviewed during this exploration was Design Leadership: How Top Design Leaders Build and Grow Successful Organizations, by Richard Banfield.

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Book Specifications

Title: Design Leadership: How Top Design Leaders Build and Grow Successful Organizations

Author: Richard Banfield

Formats: Paperback, Kindle

Publisher: O’Reilly Media

Published: 2016, 1st edition

Pages: 172

ISBN-10: 1491929200

ISBN-13: 978-1491929209

Some Background

Banfield based his book Design Leadership largely on his experience as the founder and CEO of Fresh Tilled Soil, a digital experience design agency in Boston. To a certain degree, his book is autobiographical, but Banfield augments his own experiences through interviews with other design leaders. Over the course of two years, Banfield interviewed design leaders from a variety of companies, ranging in size from five to 100 employees. After consuming all of this data, the author decided to focus on small and mid-sized design teams and, from what I can see, primarily teams that are led by the founders of a given firm.

The Book’s Content

In nearly 200 pages, Banfield covers a lot of ground, organizing the book’s content around key topics such as culture, talent, office space and remote work, leadership styles, and sales and marketing.


Appropriately, the book begins with and dedicates a fair amount of space to culture and soft skills. Banfield describes how culture—that is, a team’s alignment on an organization’s values and vision—creates a healthy work environment that is attractive not only to design talent, but also to clients. He provides suggestions on how to cultivate a positive culture—for example, shorter meetings that allow quick checkins to align activities and let team members get the most out of their day; plus, flexibility in schedules and working hours. The job of leaders is to set the conditions that allow their teams to be successful. I appreciated the insight that activity is not the same thing as productivity, which is especially true for design disciplines.

A culture that is inclusive is vital to maximizing the potential of any team. In Banfield’s words, “[It] also has the benefit of providing a level playing field so that everyone has an opportunity to advance.” Opportunity is certainly something for which many young design professionals are hungry. It is what keeps people coming back to work every day and encourages the kind of engagement that can move an organization forward.

While the book suggests dedicating a modest budget to team morale—perhaps enough to cover a monthly dinner or happy hour—Banfield wisely cautions against the trap that some companies fall into. Installing ping-pong and pool tables in a common space and providing free beer on Fridays is not culture. These things may be fun, but such superficial trappings of positive culture won’t effectively counter dysfunctional team behaviors such as infighting, hypercompetitiveness, blaming, and lack of trust. As Banfield notes, “Culture is created by the people in the room at that time.”


Banfield’s discussion of culture flows naturally into talent—another complex topic. Any manager would tell you that hiring the right people is probably the most difficult part of his or her job. Unfortunately, many companies follow skill-based heuristics for hiring that do not contribute to team culture. A great piece of advice is to find motivated people who are passionate about their work. Good designers can learn specific skills. Intelligent, loyal, engaged employees who may lack particular skills can achieve much more than employees who have all the skills, but are not engaged in their work.

Culture and talent are inextricably linked. A positive culture sustains a team and attracts talent, while negative situations tend to repel people. Many have pointed out before—and Banfield notes here—that people don’t leave companies, they generally leave dysfunctional managers and teams. Based on my own experience, this is certainly the case. Most of the time, when a project has failed or a valuable team member has left a company, the fault lies in the team dynamic.

Designing the Business

Among the ideas that this book presents, I found Banfield’s insight that “the business is the design project” valuable. After reading the book and having seen this idea presented elsewhere, this seems obvious. But I think the realization that a business is a design project is one that most design professionals have as their career progresses. Over the course of my career, I’ve heard—and said myself—that UX professionals started out designing Web sites and products, then proceeded to designing processes for doing work, then to designing teams and organizations.

Of course, as with any design project, this implies that the business will iterate—and failure will happen. What’s important is to learn from those failures. Chapter 8, “Learning from Our Biggest Mistakes,” includes several lessons that have come from failure.

Your Experience May Vary

As I noted previously, the book largely focuses on the perspective of an agency owner. While this is a reasonable approach to managing the scope of the book, it may be too limiting.

Unfortunately, this limited perspective may lead to some dissonance between the ideals that the agency leaders who Banfield interviewed have expressed and the perspectives of their employees and midlevel managers. I found what is perhaps the most salient example in Chapter 3, which discusses office space and remote work. (The emphasis is mine.)

“We’ve always had an open work space, so we’ve worked without walls. It’s one of the values of the company, and I think that just breeds honesty. There’s nowhere to hide, everybody can see what everyone else is doing, and everyone can hear and tell what’s going on. The energy in an open work space just fuses, as opposed to walls that might separate people and keep that energy contained. Some people get annoyed by the open work space because of the noise or the lack of privacy, but I think the benefits in terms of the energy and the camaraderie it breeds far outweigh the advantages.”—Vince LeVecchia, Partner and General Manager at Instrument, in Portland, Oregon

“Lack of privacy,” “nowhere to hide,” “noise….” It sounds like a panopticon to me. Despite significant research that has identified the downsides of open office plans and the author’s own acknowledgment that some of his people don’t like their open workspace, this agency leader prefers an open office plan precisely for the reasons that employees object to them: a lack of privacy and noise.

I’m sure this agency leader means well, but he justifies his company’s open office plan with unprovable platitudes such as energy that fuses and honesty. Plus, his explanation of this open office plan as a value of his firm confuses the expression of a value with the value itself. What is the actual value that provides the basis for this decision? Following an architectural fad whose intent is, frankly, to reduce real-estate cost is not a value.

Banfield describes Fresh Tilled Soil’s Apprenticeship in User Experience program. The apprenticeship model is common in Europe for a variety of industries, and Banfield’s model provides a good exemplar for how to create a talent pipeline. It’s a smart way of ensuring you have qualified talent. It’s affordable. It allows you to evaluate and train talent over months. Plus, it gives new talent an opportunity to do some good work and gain experience, possibly resulting in full-time employment and the potential to earn some income. But this model would likely be most useful to larger organizations that happen to be design agencies. It’s not applicable if you are a UX team of one inside a manufacturing firm, have to contend with a human resources department, and have just enough budget for a summer intern.


How would I succinctly describe Design Leadership? It’s certainly not a how-to book on design leadership. (In fact, Banfield states this in his preface.) It’s a largely autobiographical piece that describes the experiences of a select group of design leaders at agencies. This is not a criticism. Some of my favorite books concerning leadership are autobiographies.

Who is this book for? If you have aspirations to lead or establish a dedicated design firm or a somewhat autonomous design team within a design-friendly organization—or already lead such a team or own such a firm—you’ll probably find a lot of great ideas in this book. If you are a UX professional or manager inside a product or services company, you may still appreciate the lessons, but you’ll probably scratch your head while trying to imagine how to implement them in your organization. 

Request for suggestions—I need more books to review! Is there a book you love—or hate? Have you recently published a book? I’d love to take a read. While I already have a list of books that I want to review, I would really appreciate your recommendations. Please send your suggestions to: [email protected].

Owner and Principal Consultant at Covalent Studio LLC

Akron, Ohio, USA

D. Ben WoodsBen’s global design and technology firm specializes in software design and development for the Web, mobile, and ecommerce. The company serves clients ranging from small startups to some of the largest companies in the world, including General Electric, Rio Tinto, and Fidelity. His career in User Experience began in the late 1990s. Ben has held diverse roles, including UX management at a global B2B firm, full-time and part-time academia, and executive roles. He enjoys solving complex business problems and coaching talent to be competitive UX design professionals. Ben earned his MS in Information Architecture and Knowledge Management at Kent State University and is a graduate of the Executive MBA program at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management. He has presented long-format talks, speed presentations, and posters at many conferences and events and has conducted training and workshops for organizations throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia.  Read More

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